Cairo: An Unexpected Encounter

22 07 2011

A little over a year ago – while on our way home from a road trip – Katie and I happened upon Cairo, Illinois. We knew nothing of this town, other than that it had an international name (indeed, this was the reason we chose to pass through and to take a picture or two of the town’s sign). We spent a total of about ten minutes in Cairo, yet it has occupied much of our heart and mind over the last year.

Why?

As we were driving through we wondered and asked one another, “What happened here?” The town looked largely abandoned: street signs had rusted; dozens and dozens of buildings were vacant and boarded up, or perhaps gutted by fire; many buildings were overgrown with vines or were (literally) falling apart – whole brick walls having crumbled to the ground. What once appeared to be the main commercial area of town was now just a skeleton of buildings (though the area was still labeled as “Historic Downtown Cairo” by a large, metal entryway).

We took a few pictures, asked one another again, “What happened here?”, and then continued out of town and toward Colorado. But the memory of the place and a curiousity of its story stuck with us.

Upon returning to Colorado we investigated Cairo as much as we could. We discovered that it was once a booming town… a city built for 20,000 residents (and at the time of our visit having only 3,000). It’s location at the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River made it an important player in the era of the steam engine. It had also been a place of major conflict during the civil rights movement. I’m not completely sure how the story goes, but essentially white business owners refused to hire black employees… so black residents boycotted white businesses… and instead of giving in, white businesses simply left town.

From what we could tell Cairo never recovered; the population simply continued to decrease. On the other hand, the level of poverty seems to have increased. As of 2000, roughly 2/3 of students in the Cairo school district are below the poverty line. Any remaining businesses seem to be slowly moving out of Cairo (a coffee shop/bookstore/community center that had opened closed after about a year).

In short, I began to think of Cairo as a town with little-to-no hope. …and for some reason, Katie and I were both (individually) drawn to this place. We began to ask one another (before we were even engaged) what it might look like if we were to move there. What if we were to move there and simply live among the poverty? …among the seeming hopelessness? (Though there is always hope; there is always the chance of resurrection … at least that’s what I believe).

That seems like something Jesus might do, doesn’t it?

And so, for the last year Cairo has been on our mind. Could this be the place God is calling us to live? Perhaps. …but we’d only spent a total of about ten minutes in the actual town. So we found an empty jar and made it our Cairo jar. We would fill it with loose change and bills until we had enough to make another trip to Cairo.

Last week we decided we had enough to make the trip and that the timing was right. We loaded our car and headed east.

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